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Perspective: Real Data on Career Preferences

A recent study on the career preferences of science graduate students, published in PLoS ONE, has attracted a lot of attention for one of its conclusions: that student interest in academic research careers declines over the course of graduate school.

We also need to worry about whether science careers in any sector are sufficiently rewarding, remunerative, and stable to justify the long time investment, the frustrations of training, and the forgone earnings; if they're not, we can't expect the most capable young people to choose careers in science.

But the study's most notable result isn't how career preferences change over time; it’s how wide those preferences are. The study shows that when it comes to career choices, science graduate students are very open-minded. That's good news.

In the PLoS ONE study, Henry Sauermann, a behavioral economist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, and Michael Roach, a decision scientist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, surveyed 4109 Ph.D. students at 39 tier-one U.S. research universities. They asked them, among other questions, how attractive they found the prospect of working in academia (in both teaching and research careers), government, and at established and startup companies. The graduate students they surveyed were enrolled in programs in "bio/life" (59% of those surveyed), physics (23%), or chemistry (18%). The researchers divided respondents into early-stage and late-stage cohorts depending on how far along they were in graduate school.

Here's the result that has gotten the most press: Academic research careers were less popular with the late cohorts than the early ones in all disciplines, suggesting, perhaps, that graduate students are disillusioned by exposure to the lives and careers of their faculty advisers.

Whatever the stage of graduate training, none of the proposed career paths were found to be unpopular—not even academic research careers. In the early cohort of bio/life scientists, for example, 78% were positive about academic research careers; 64% held positive opinions of academic teaching careers; 71% found the prospect of working in government appealing; 59% found careers at a large firm in industry “attractive” or "extremely attractive." Even in the later cohort—post-disillusionment—67% of bio/life scientists remained interested in academic research careers. And even the least popular workplace—private-sector startup companies—attracted a healthy 45% of early-cohort life scientists, and 47% of the late cohort.

What about the other disciplines? The percentage of physicists who rated the various career paths "attractive" or "extremely attractive" ranged from 51% (early cohort; startup company) to 81% (early cohort; academic research). The numbers for chemists were similar, ranging from 47% to 80%.

The percentage of respondents with a negative opinion of a particular career path—finding it either "unattractive" or "extremely unattractive"—was consistently low. The only group that rejected a particular path more than a third of the time was late-cohort chemists, 38% of whom expressed a negative opinion of careers in academic research. Across all other disciplines, cohorts, and career paths, the percentage of students with a negative view of any career ranged between 6% (early-cohort physicists; careers in government) and 24% (late-cohort chemists; careers in academic teaching).

The obvious conclusion of the study is that most graduate students are open to a range of possible employment outcomes, whether they're just beginning or further along in their training. So, if you were worried that only a small proportion of Ph.D. graduates end up in tenure-track faculty posts, as I was, you can stop worrying about that now.

Instead, we should all be worrying about the difficulty Ph.D. graduates often have locating jobs in, and making transitions into, some of those other work sectors that they appear to view favorably. We also need to worry about whether science careers in any sector are sufficiently rewarding, remunerative, and stable to justify the long time investment, the frustrations of training, and the forgone earnings; if they're not, we can't expect the most capable young people to choose careers in science. Instead, they'll choose other careers with better prospects, like finance or figuring out how to make people click on banner ads on Facebook.

We should also worry about whether those students are receiving the training they need to compete for jobs in sectors beyond academia. Our graduate programs already do the most important thing extremely well: The best way to convey strong analytical skills is to teach students to be outstanding researchers. But there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to even the most basic professional skills.

For example, graduate departments need to do a better job of teaching laboratory safety skills, not only to keep academic researchers safe but also to give them a skill that is regarded as essential in most companies. Also, Science Careers's informal polls indicate that some graduate students aren't consistently keeping proper lab notebooks. Scientific record-keeping is a basic professional skill for any scientist—but it's especially important in industry, where laboratory records must be robust enough to stand up to an intellectual property challenge.

Discussions from a spate of recent congressional hearings and professional society meetings also indicate that hiring managers believe that recent Ph.D. grads lack the skills needed to work effectively on industry teams. This is one of the reasons, they say, that they are reluctant to hire recent Ph.D. grads who lack industry experience. Of course, scientists who choose careers in academia would benefit just as much from enhanced teamwork skills.

Clearly, there's a mismatch here. Careers in academia are scarce, and students are open to a wide range of other possibilities. Our science graduate programs do an excellent job of conveying scientific and analytical skills, but emphasizing skills needed to practice science in a wider range of careers would likely pay large dividends, scientifically and in the employability of graduates.

Jim Austin is the editor of Science Careers

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